Saturday, December 29, 2007

"Forget the Alamo"

The entry is part of the Endings Blog-a-Thon, featuring a variety of other blogs all talking about movie endings, which i find a fascinating subject. Thanks to Joe at Joe's Movie Corner for putting this all together.

And therefore, be forewarned that the very nature of this posting means here there be spoilers and please do not read unless you have seen the movie in question or don't mind the ending ruined.

Every semester that I teach the introductory film course, I pick a new slate of 14 movies to show over the course of the semester. Most of the students stay with me no matter what I teach, because, somehow, they trust me. Even the movies that confuse them -- Lucretia Martel's The Holy Girl (which I've written about before), Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (which I still don't understand why they don't like), Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (their dislike for this also mystifies me, yet it's happened three times) -- are accepted.

All except one.

This is a still from the final scene in John Sayles' Lone Star, one of the most impressive movies I have seen about the contemporary American condition. Featuring a complex tapestry of storylines centering about the town of Perdido on the Texan border with Mexico, the film also openly deals with complicated concerns about history and how nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Unlike other films which tackle RACIAL CONCERNS!! with bolded, italicized, capital letters by arming itself with a sledgehammer of stereotypes (hello, Crash!), each person in Sayles' Lone Star is a full-fledged character, even if they only have a single scene.

The movie begins with the discovery of a sheriff's badge and a bullet on a skeleton right outside the town limits. This sends the current sheriff, Sam Deeds (played by Chris Cooper), on a quest to determine whether local hero and lauded sheriff Buddy Deeds -- who happens to be his father -- actually deserves his honor, or whether he killed a fellow sheriff in cold blood. In the process, he unearths many long-buried stories about how the white, black, Mexican and native populations have not-so-carefully gotten along in the interim and how times really have changed.

Add into the mix a rather interesting and tender romance between Sam and schoolteacher Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Peña). We eventually learn that she is widowed with a teenage son, he is divorced, and that as teenagers themselves they were deeply in love. Torn apart when his father and her mother, a Mexican immigrant, find them hot and heavy at a drive-in, they are forbidden to see one another until now. As the rest of the story unfolds, Sam and Pilar's story seems like an interesting diversion. At one point, we are even offered a very steamy lovemaking scene between Sam and Pilar with Freddy Fender playing in the background.

If you've seen other Sayles films, you'll know that that scene is a bit out of character for him. Indeed, the love scene seems otherwise typical for any other film, shot in a very standard style. But most of Sayles' films don't deal with love in quite this way, so this stands out, even if it doesn't seem that problematic or consequential at the time.

It turns out to be very important. The last scene is very simple: Pilar drives up to the drive-in -- long since abandoned -- to meet Sam for the first time since they had their fling, the very drive-in where their parents separated them so many years ago. And while there, Sam shows her a picture of her parents. That is, a picture of her mother and his father. Yes: at the very end, she -- and we -- find out that his father had been having a secret affair with the Mexican immigrant who he helped save as she was crossing the border. And that what they though was merely their parents' racist attitudes covered a bigger fear: that they would find each other and commit incest instead. May I remind you of the sensuous love scene I described above?

Here is the kicker: she is completely overcome, not believing that after all this time of unrequited love, they are still thwarted. He holds her hand as they sit on the hood of his car.
Sam: If I met you today, I'd still want to be with you.
Pilar: We start from scratch?
Sam: Yeah.
Pilar: All that other stuff-- all that history... to hell with it, right? Forget the Alamo.
And the movie ends.

It's important to know that I usually end my screenings by having a discussion immediately following the credits. Students have usually taken this moment to chat with one another about it and I then offer them the ability to share with everyone what they think, a la 60s cinephilia.

Here's the thing: this is the only movie which hasn't worked well under such circumstances. Upon further reflection, students are able to process the subtle layering of the movie, how this one very quiet scene sends a corkscrew through every other part of the movie. It turns everything around and manages to force us as viewers to reflect on each element of the movie as it has built up. It's a different kind of twist than what we are used to in things like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, but those movie also allow us with at least a couple shots in a montage to show us just how the twist affects the movie. Lone Star makes us think that for ourselves, which we eventually do. As such, it's an extraordinary piece.

But this ending really messes up your average undergraduate's mind, where all they can think is oh mah gahd, he just slept with his SISTER!!! I mean, heck, Chinatown gave us more time to deal with that. The fact that these otherwise really cool, normal, nice characters not only learn that they have committed an ultimate transgression but that they resolve to be OK with it and keep going -- to "forget the Alamo" indeed -- is just too much to immediately process. Lone Star has an ending that demands thought and time and, as such, stands above many other contemporary films.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Joy to the World

We're up in Cape Cod this Christmas and, although there is no snow around, everyone has been having a good time. Around here, presents are opened on Christmas Eve, so we had fun opening last night -- all except for Xan, who waited until this morning after Santa had delivered. (We've then been opening throughout the day, as he just got overwhelmed with items. He still has two more to open, I think.)

Christmas Eve, however, is usually punctuated by Angela and me -- and now Xan -- accompanying her grandparents to church. A word here: I am now a Unitarian-Universalist, although I have admittedly been lax at getting to services every Sunday; Angela has generally inherited her father's (dis-)taste for anything church-related. In general, however, this is something that Nana in particular loves and we feel it's the best for everyone to go to church, even if it means delaying the Christmas Eve Meal for some time.

I should also say that I happen to love Christmas Eve services. This is, after all, the happiest day in the Christian calendar with no strings attached. If I am ever wistful for Christmas, I think of the services from back home in Lima which, for me, were always a great sign of Christmas, even though it was usualy hot and outside in the summer evening air (which I never got used to for the holidays). My church in Lima does a candlelight service with lots of Christmas carols (and for many years I was forced into the choir as a guy who could sing), so for me Christmas always solidifies with a singing on "Silent Night" as the lights go out and the candles turn on -- but in my world, it features three verses in English and one each in the original German and in Spanish. For me, that's magic.

Two years ago when we were last on the Cape for the holidays, we went to what was billed as a "Birthday Party for Jesus." This turned out to be amazingly wonderful, even for the sub-one-year-old that we had at the time: lots of Christmas carols, a direct rendering of the Christmas story and afterwards a quick round of "Happy Birthday to You" with balloons and cake in the parish hall. Brief, to the point and entirely on a kid's level. It was, to use a word, heavenly. I was actually looking forward to the service this year, gleefully expecting cake.

In the interim, however, the former pastor (who actually married us) has been moved elsewhere and a new pastor -- who we refer to as "Reverend Doctor" since the "Dr." was prominently on display when we attended a memorial service only a month or so ago -- has been installed. We had not been to a regular church service at this church for quite some time.

Certainly, I would not have expected that our venture would be worth recoutning. And yet, here I am

For starters, we walk into the main hall of the church to the musicians practicing, since we're a little early. There is a boy playing trumpet and a woman playing piano. They appear to be playing similar tunes, but are at an interval that is dissonant. "Is the trumpet in a different key?" I turn to ask Angela. "Maybe," she says, "since I don't think piano and trumpet are in the same key. Surely the pianist has figured this out." Indeed, we see the two chatting and they wander off as everyone else is wandering in. Xan picks a row for us to sit in and Nana and we two are happily esconced. There is even a little boy who comes to try to make friends with Xan.

At some point before the service begins, we notice a rather large change to the church: there are now two rather large screens hanging around the cross. Oddly, this seems incongruous to me in this otherwise fiarly normally adorned church and I realize that they have gone high-tech in a way, that the lyrics will be projected. I look down at my program and see the lyrics have also been printed in full here. Why, I think, do we have both? Isn't this a waste of paper?

The service begins and the first thing we realize is that the pianist and the trumpeter clearly have not been talking about how to fix their problem because it's still there. They are still dissonant. This grates on a number of my nerves. Xan, however, is thrilled to pieces and fascinated by the music. It appears that he knows something of "Jingle Bells" and tries in a few places to sing it while he is in my arms.

We quickly fall into "Angels We Have Heard On High." This features the chorus that goes "Glooooooooria, in excelsis deo." Xan perks up with a big smile: "Fire engine!" Indeed, each time the church sings the "Glooooooooria," it sounds like a siren and he starts happily singing along, "Fiiire engiiiine! Wooooo!"

As is to be expected. the lyrics come up on the aforementioned screens. As is to be expected, said lyrics are correctly rendered, sometimes.

There is a skit in the middle of the service, impassionately performed by several of the congregation's kids, where each letter in "Christmas" is noted, with some notation as to how a word beginning with that letter pertains to Christmas (such as "T is for tequila, which you undoubtedly could use right about now"). Before this begins, however, the screen features a lone "C" while the pastor explains what is about to occur. A long animated bell continues to ring on the corner of the screen. Xan lights up, happily yells: "Jingle bells!" The pastor, who has not said anything about what anybody else's kid has done, calls attention to this. Xan then proceeds to repeat each letter as a kid comes forward with a large letter. (As is perhaps to be expected, at one point the word in front of us reads "CHRI2TMAS.")

The Biblical passage that the pastor reads comes from a completely different translation than what appears on screen.

The trumpet and piano still are not together as the carols continue.

The kids are brought up for a small children's sermon, which involves him going on about war. The one cool thing that happens at this service is when he gives the kids bells made from spent cartidges made from the metalic detritus of war in Indochina. Xan has gone up with the rest ofthe kids but, upon seeing a mother with a smaller child in her arms, comes back to drag Angela up with him, thus inducting her into the Dadak tradition of being forced against their will to the front of the church (which apparently happened to her father all the time as he would arrive late to Christmas pageants when only the front row was left).

At some point during this, Nana turns to me and points out a 60-something-year-old man sitting with the kids. "That's Joseph," she says to me. I later find out from Angela's mother that indeed this man played Joseph in aliving nativity scene in front of the church; Mary was played by a 14-year-old. Yeesh.

The kids come back with the bells and I realize that my kid finally got his jingle bell -- and that he won't be the only one making noise for the rest of the service.

This being a kids-oriented service, the pastor then offers a regular sermon where I believe he discusses homeless people in three different cities. At this point, however, Xan gets antsy and forces each of his parents out into the vestibule for a while. (In my time away, we got to look at both the traffic and the parking lot.) I realize by this point that, this being the happiest day of the year, the pastor hasn't smiled once.

For the last hymn, the pastor introduces a new song with a calypso beat. (Remember, we're in Massachusetts, where spicy often means black pepper.) The piano and trumpet are still nopt coordinated, no one else appears to know the tune, the lyrics provided on the screen are half grammtically correct and and half rendered in grammatically-incorrect-yet-possibly-Caribbean-patois-maybe? style, Xan is still happily singing about fire engines on one side and Nana, who is lovely but completely tone-deaf, is singing on the other.

The service ends. We do not stay for cake.

I know Christmas Eve services. Later, I will tell Angela that this was by far one of the worst I have been to, on many levels. Before then, however, we turn to Nana in the car: "How did you like the service?"

"Wasn't it lovely?" Nana said genuinely. "I just love seeing all the kids around. And you."

And that, kids, is what the holidays are all about. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I think I've seen this someplace before...

Anyone who has taken one of my classes knows that I am somewhat obsessed with fonts. Somehow, I missed this particular font-oriented tidbit, brilliantly put together by Goodie Bag. Now all I need to to see the new documentary Helvetica and my life melding my font and movie obsessions shall be complete.

(Cross-posted at the new Critical Approach to the Cinema blog, for the AU Cinema Studies student community!)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

In lieu of day laborers

Cookie season is under way. Luckily, we now can employ some indentured servitude to get through the many baked goods that need to be made during this time of the year.

Rates per hour will go up when he's able to reach the sink in order to wash the dishes.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Why I still get carded

Overheard this evening, on the bus coming home with Mama:

X: Mercedes is a kid.
A: Yes, she is.
X: And Xan is a kid.
A: Yes, you're right.
X: And Dada is a kid.
A: No, he's a grown-up.
X (in resolve voice, a la Willow Rosenberg): No, he is not a grown-up. Dada's a kid.
A: He may act like a kid sometimes, but he's really a grown-up.
X: No, he's not. Dada's a kid.
(slight pause)
X: Mama's a grown-up.

Well, there you have it.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Ahead and Behind

The grading piles left over from Thanksgiving are finally completed. I am as mystified as everyone else that it has taken this long. But I'm back and, while I have to now make it through the next week of final exams, I may be back to blogging at least a little more regularly.

To celebrate, Angela and I have thought about posting this Way-Too-Much-Information posting for some time now. So, here goes:

The Last Ten Places Xan Has Asked One of His Parents to Kiss Because He Has Hurt It (And Which We Have Subsequently Kissed, Despite Any Aversions)
  1. Head
  2. Finger
  3. Head
  4. Elbow
  5. Head (hmm, trend?)
  6. Head
  7. Tongue ("Dada, I'th bith my thongue. Can you kith it?")
  8. Back
  9. Head
  10. Butt (For the first time, but undoubtedly not the last: "Dada, kiss my butt!")
I would continue this posting, but I think I hear him crawling up to take a flying leap off the ottoman onto the sofa. Again.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Last night

(Paper count:
"Jeff, how many are left?"
"About 20."
"In that stack or overall?"
"Just in that stack. Should have it done tonight or tomorrow. Then one more stack to go before all the finals come in.")

Visions of Holiday to Come (by AMD)

Last night, the three of us were sitting in Xan's room during the handoff between post-bath/pyjamas (Jeff) and pre-story/music (Angela).

"Goodnight, Dada. I love you." Kiss.

"Did you say goodnight to the Christmas tree?"

Xan hops off the bed and excitedly scampers into the living room. "Goodnight Christmas tree." Parents smile. "I love you." Parents giggle. "I give you a hug." Parents panic.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

No se lo digas a nadie

I'm raising my head up from the morass (four piles down, two to go) with news that is not news -- or, rather, that I got news that I don't want to publicly advertise yet because it's not definite yet. (No, nobody's pregnant.) Nonetheless, it points to some very good news. I'll just leave it at that

With one week before the semester ends, it's back to the grind.